London: The Petrie Museum

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If I’m honest, when I walked in to the Petrie, and saw a huge case full of flint blades and pottery shards, I imagined this museum would be unbearably dull.  Rubbly old ancient artefacts are not my cup of tea, and I imagined I’d quickly shuffle around the museum and then get out, so at least I could say I’d been.  But, I pressed on and gave it a chance, and turned out to be pleasantly surprised by the many highlights of this extensive collection.  If you manage to stick with this post, I hope you’ll be similarly persuaded that the Petrie is worth visiting!

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The Petrie Museum is free, located in the middle of UCL’s campus, and is apparently one of the “greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archeology in the world” (per their website).  The museum is housed in only two rooms and a stairwell, but because most of the objects are quite small, there’s a hell of a lot of them (over 80,000 apparently, though I very much doubt they’re all on display).  I guess that means there’s something for everyone, especially if you like pottery.

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I am being slightly facetious here though, because there’s so much more to the Petrie than that.  As I said, it might not look like much at first glance, but if you really take the time to peruse the cases, you’ll discover so many wonderful things hidden amongst the pottery shards.

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Like limestone and glass eyeballs (I am a total sucker for eyeball stuff – I used to have an eyeball lamp and eye lights hanging from my bedroom wall, and really wanted an eyeball tattoo at one point in time, but fortunately was sensible enough not to follow through on the tattoo.  (I wish the same could be said of the stupid tattoo designs I did end up getting)).  And a tiny gold cat with a humanesque face, because why not?  (There were also a bunch of cat figurines, including one with kittens, shown a few pictures up.)

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How about some ancient socks, or a tiny baboon amulet?

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Or clay garlic?  And I think anyone with a sense of humour as juvenile as mine will be impressed by the carving of some Egyptian god with an enormous erection.  See what I mean about there being something for everyone?

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The museum exists due to the combined efforts of Amelia Edwards and Professor William Petrie.  Amelia Edwards was a writer and adventurer who collected hundreds of antiquities (she seems to have been unusually adventurous for a Victorian lady, and I’d love to learn more about her), and donated her collection to start the museum, in addition to providing a bequest to found a department of Egyptian Archeology at UCL.  The Petrie grew to the size it is today due to the early 20th century (the boom time for Egyptology) excavations of its namesake, William “Flinders” Petrie, the first chair of Egyptology in the whole of Britain.

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I know the export of ancient artefacts is a controversial subject, but as I’m unlikely to go to Egypt any time in the foreseeable future, I’m glad collections like this exist so people like me have a chance to see these incredible objects (and obviously nothing new has been added to the collection in decades, since the export of antiquities from Egypt has been illegal for quite some time).  I think the artefacts in the Petrie collection offer a much better view of Egyptian daily life than the usual sort of sarcophagi and opulent funeral accessories, and prove that the Egyptians must have had a sense of humour.  You don’t often think of ancient history as being whimsical, but that really is the best way to describe some of these objects.

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For instance, this tile of a woman having her nose scratched by a monkey (because who doesn’t want a nose scratching monkey?! Well, me, because that’s probably a good way to contract ebola and other horrible diseases, but in theory it’s a nice idea).  I will take a rather adorable hat-wearing falcon though.

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Of course, there are a few objects relating to Egyptian funerary practices, as this was such a large part of the culture, but there’s only a handful of sarcophagi, and I found the giant clay pots that some people were buried in more interesting than those anyway. Even better still were the Greek-influenced face covers, as shown at the start of the post.  I initially discovered covers in this style (I don’t know what the exact term for them is) when I made my first visit to the British Museum (many years ago now), because although I loved the Egyptian section at the Cleveland Museum of Art, their collection wasn’t anywhere near as extensive as the BM’s, and they didn’t have anything like them.  I’ve loved them ever since, and they were some of my favourite things in the Petrie.

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Although the pictures haven’t come out that well, I also think some of the textiles were really incredible.  It was just plain neat to see a shirt that’s thousands of years old, and has somehow survived the centuries and looks a great deal like a shirt someone would wear today.  Amazing.

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Most of the objects have a very terse, factual label attached, and there’s a larger description of the time period, region of Egypt, or types of artefacts, attached to the sides of the cases, but there’s not much detail on individual items (though I think there is a guide available if you want to take the time to read it).  For the most part, I didn’t mind this, both because I would have been there all night if each of the thousands of artefacts had a lengthy description, but also because it’s fun to speculate on how things might have been used, though it might have been nice to learn more about the really cool stuff.  Of course, what I think is cool might not be what everyone is drawn towards; I guess they really would have to expand on everything rather than picking and choosing, so I can see why they’ve gone with the current system (but if you don’t think a humanoid cat is cool, I don’t understand you).

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I think I’ve probably sufficiently conveyed my enthusiasm for the Petrie.  I’m glad I stuck with it, because I do genuinely prefer it to the Egyptian section at the BM.  That said, if it’s your first time in London, and you want to see big, grand Egyptian artefacts (and don’t mind the crowds) then the British Museum is probably the place to go, but if you’ve already been and want something a bit different, come to the Petrie, especially if you want to better appreciate the quirky side of Egyptian culture, and want a stress-free, uncrowded museum experience.  This truly is a hidden gem of a museum, and I definitely recommend checking it out, even if, like me, you’re not normally all that keen on ancient history.  4/5.

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  1. Amazing what one finds in museums. It sounds fascinating. and how interesting that there’s a museum with artifacts from two African countries, to boot! Sudan and Egypt.

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